Pianist Arthur Schnabel used to urge his students to reach for artistic heights with the phrase, "Safety last!" Cellist Robert Battey needed a dose of that advice in his pleasant but far too polite recital at the National Gallery last night.
Battey, a member of the Volker String Quartet in residence at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has developed a solid ability on his instrument. His affinity for the more tender and lyrical aspects of music came through clearly in a nicely shaded reading of George Rochberg's unabashedly nostalgic "Ricordanza" of 1972. For the greater part of the program, however, Battey chose to play in a cool, well-schooled manner, never allowing himself or his instrument to show any strong signs of character.
In particular, the opening Debussy sonata and the closing Richard Strauss sonata, each in its own way a highly individual statement, cried out for far greater contrasts in color and approach than Battey was willing to give. His interpretation of Bach's First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello seldom rose above the correct, because Battey did not give himself the space to explore the music's interior meaning. Pianist Edward Newman provided expressive support throughout the evening.